Thursday, October 17, 2013

Organic Sense of Place and Power Brokers

Standing in the rain last week at a ribbon-cutting, I surveyed the crowd for the handful of people who fashion themselves as “power brokers.”  None were there, which is a sign the project is a natural fit, more filling in than wedging in, a “win-win” vs. zero sum and complimentary vs. silo.

Dignitaries were there to show support along with many others who truly have power.  But they were sprinkled among a far more abundant number of just regular folks who are passionate about Durham, North Carolina.

Durham has always had one or two power-brokers, fortunately just not the kind who think they are.  I’ve had the pleasure to know and work with three generations here going back to Mary Duke Biddle Semans and George Watts Hill.

Rather than bullying or superimposing their will through heavy-handedness, Durham’s true power-brokers have been patient with process.  Sense of place is about “gardening,” not “big game” hunting.   It is something organic that can’t be stamped out factory-style.

Two weeks ago I attended a dinner to honor one true power broker, Tallman Trask, and tonight I’ll raise a glass to toast the retirement of another, Wib Gulley, both of whom I am also honored to have as friends.

The key to visitor-centric cultural and economic development is only revealed and fueled by good place-marketing.  An indispensible pre-requisite is the existence of an authentic sense of place.

Beyond a mere jumble of culture, sense of place, to adapt the words of another longtime Durhamster, relies on a genuine community personality.

Power-broker “wanna bees” are often betrayed by their impatience with process and frequent use of force, including not-so-veiled threats sometimes.

Deep down, these folks are petrified that the true process of place-shaping will result in “anyone being able to say no, but no one being able to say yes.”

The “wanna bees” have a point, but while they may love Durham, it isn’t for what it is now nor how it came to be.  This makes them puzzled by data and vulnerable to decision-making by hunch, and in extreme cases cannibalistic, because their worldview is zero sum, winners or losers.

Often disparaged as DINOs (Durham In Name Only) even by those from whom they seek admiration, to me they are just afraid…and deeply suspicious of the organic nature of place evolution.

I feel sorry for them, but they certainly aren’t exclusive to Durham, they just stand out more here as an anomaly.

At least ten times that I am aware of over the span of my four-decade career marketing three different communities, power-broker “wanna bees” tried to get me fired.  I learned to respond by seeking to understand them.

In each of these cities I even helped one or two get on my governing board but they soon resigned, impatient with the process of governance or their inability to control a table of equals.  I never let any of their attempts to “get” me affect working with them wherever and whenever possible. 

A friend of mine who is a journalist and historian, who first approached me nearly 25-years ago about the need for such a facility is not being disrespectful when he refers to the herculean step taken last week as “a brick and glass avatar” of the one day Museum of Durham History (MoDH.)

At the time he and I first met, I was jumpstarting Durham’s official community destination marketing agency, an organization charged with telling the community’s story and safeguarding its sense of place, a position from which I retired many years ago.

Part of that mission included a thorough on-going analysis of Durham’s strengths and opportunities as a visitor destination.

As it has repeatedly since, that first analysis revealed that the need for a museum of local history is, and continues to be, Durham’s most glaring cultural deficit, something also confirmed separately a few years ago by consultants conducting a cultural master plan.

Analysis such as that conducted by Durham’s arm for visitor centric cultural and economic development is triangulated by:

  1. Comparing our community by facility-type and category, with the average of similar communities in the state, across the region and nationwide.
  2. Conducting research to determine a community’s visitor volume and participation in various activities to then compare against benchmarks nationwide.
  3. Scientifically surveying a community’s residents and opinion leaders to identify and generalize the cultural priorities of internal stakeholders.

The analysis also ventured to suggest a self-funding mechanism to reinvest what would today be 1.6% of the local tax revenue reaped collectively by the city and county each year from visitors spending into development of a Museum of Durham History.

Including operation and upkeep, that’s less than 2% which would be easily recouped by Durham’s ability to harvest its full share of visitor participation at historic sites and monuments from its annual visitor base, which is now 9 million.

But as it has since first proposed in 1934, the idea of a Durham history museum continues to be leapfrogged by other needs, often disparaged during the process.  In the meantime, Durham historic treasures have been lost when discarded by three subsequent generations who failed to understand their value.

This may include the steam calliope that signaled shift-change atop “Old Bull,” a part of the national landmark which can’t be found.  Appropriately, It imitated the sound of a bull, something I know from growing up on a ranch would certainly get your attention.

All of this makes the “avatar” that opened last week even more impressive, but all has not been lost by the almost 80-year delay.  Many overlapping working groups of determined residents have continued to discuss the project over this span.

Undetected by impatient “list checkers,” each time these discussions have seemed to recycle, the concept has been re-informed along the route by more and more of what will ultimately make the real Museum of Durham History seamless and enduring when it becomes a reality.

Sense of place is not about having a jumble of “palaces,” but a mosaic of natural, cultural and “built” place-based assets forming an overall and distinctive community appeal.  It isn’t about being “world class” or “major league.”  It is about having a distinctive “there” there.

One thing that makes a local history museum similar to other types of cultural facilities is the proportion visitor-related admissions each year.

What truly distinguishes this type of facility from others is that instead of going there to watch the outside world pass by, residents, newcomers and visitors go to a history museum to explore the soul of a community and to appreciate and perpetuate the temporal values and traits that make a community unique and distinct.

In this respect, a local history museum is more a “cathedral” than a “palace,”  a place to glean ideas for the future by understanding the innovations of the past.

History museums are also participative and interactive, fulfilling the increasing need of Americans to modulate the amount recreational resources used at any given time.

Durham is justifiably proud of the board of directors, staff, volunteers and donors for the MoDH and its new hub.   This milestone is incredible and stands on the shoulders of Durham residents who have worked hard over the past eight decades to see it take this step.

They are genuine power-brokers, Durham-style.  Below are just four of the many additional reasons this tile in the mosaic of Durham’s sense of place is so important:

  • Story Telling . it will give children, students, newcomers and relocating executives a place to get in touch with Durham’s story. People who grasp that story are more inclined to be engaged as activists, volunteers and philanthropy.
  • Synergy. It will augment Durham’s historic sites by providing exhibition space to stir interest in those locations, making them more sustainable. It will complement rather than undermine other cultural facilities and programming.
  • Preservation. It will be a vigilant testimony to what makes the community distinct and unique and insulate its character and personality from the pressures of development and generica.
  • Future Generations. As a repository of innovations and artifact, it will inspire future generations to build on the temporal qualities that make Durham, well, Durham…creative, entrepreneurial, caring, innovative, accepting etc.

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